Government engages with strategic marketing at last

First published on 21 Jan 2011 -

My first ever blog as ‘A Different Hat’ on was posted on 13 November 2009. It was called ‘Convergence and Divergence’ –

After setting up my core thesis, I said:

….the technology designed to bring us together is driving us apart. Surely this new technology, which all of us are using as communications tools, will have freed up more ‘spare media space’ than ever?

So in this divergent world, can’t we, as a business sector, including clients and agencies, be more creative about using our talents and resources to define and create messaging which might help overcome the divisions in the society we live in?

From time to time in the trade press, I have seen hypothetical lists of ‘teams of all the talents’.

Why can’t we do this for real and bring our resources and our skills together to communicate the importance of the values that UNITE us?

Wouldn’t this be a great brief?”

So, on last week, I was delighted to read an article headed ‘Sorrell and Wight to inform COI review’ – – which said:

The Government has formed a roundtable of experts including WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell, Engine Group chairman Robin Wight and Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham to advise on its review of the future of COI.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said: “The Government needs to be far more innovative in thinking about how it can best deliver incredibly important public information messages.

“We need to incorporate the latest ideas from initiatives such as the Ad-Council in the US and the latest thinking from experts such as our Behavioural Insight “nudge” Team.’

As discussed in last week’s post (‘Coalition? They’re all over the place!’) they call this Nudge Team the BIT –

I admit that the brief to this ‘roundtable of experts’ does not seem one which will change the world, but – at last – the UK Government seems ready to engage with the marketing and communications industry in a more ‘upstream’ way.

Many times, particularly in Campaign, have I read about the virtues of the COI (Advertiser of the Year 2009, no less) and I absolutely 100% accept that they are all very professional people who do an excellent job.

My issue has been not with the COI itself but the briefs they are given and the role they have played in society. My feeling is that the COI – which, of course, is not their fault – have been asked to produce campaigns that are tactical rather than strategic. Wear a seatbelt. Don’t drink and drive. Catch it. Bin it. Kill it.

Of course, politicians don’t use the word strategy. They use the word policy.

And the Government are not allowed to use the COI to communicate policies. ‘Policies’ are, by nature and definition, party political.

So, as soon as public money is used to present any Government initiative including, for example, the reasons we have gone to war, the Opposition are up in arms and start shouting and waving paper around in the House of Commons. They say that, because they hold the opposite view (which they have to because that is why they are called the Opposition), the Government should not use public money in this way.

I think this is mad.

Take this week as an example.

Do any of us have a clue what the new structural reforms of the NHS are all about?

What does abolishing Primary Care Trusts and empowering GPs really mean?

Is this change for change’s sake?

Or is it just to save money?

What about people who depend on the NHS, not only for their jobs (1.3million of them, no less) but as patients?

How will they be affected?

Are they worried?

What has been done to overcome their concerns?

To what extent have their concerns been considered?

If the NHS was a commercial business with the whole population as its customers, would it have communicated these fundamental changes in this way? 

My answer – and I know a bit about the NHS – is a resounding NO.

It is my hypothesis that many of those who need the NHS most are the least likely to know the answers to these questions. This is unkind, uncaring and inhumane.

All we have heard has been yah-boo politics and posturing and people taking sides and, frankly, as a patient – a customer – I don’t care about all this.

I just want to get better. I want the NHS to care for me. How will these changes achieve that?

I think this is a major problem for us as a society. For better or for worse, the UK Government are not allowed to use ‘public funds’ to explain what and why they are doing – even at the expense of the concerns, and day-to-day livelihood, of the British people.

They reason they are not allowed to do this is because the opposition would want to have their say too.

Well, I am sorry, but this just cannot be right.

The Government is the Government. Whether it is this political party or that political party, or a combination of two political parties, and whether you like them or not, in the modern world, the people whose lives the decisions of the Government will affect deserve to have the ‘policies’ that affect them explained simply and clearly and in a manner they understand.

Furthermore, the affect of these policies on the people they effect needs to be considered earlier in the process. Further upstream. To use Francis Maude’s own language, what human behavioural insights have informed these policies?

Frankly, for as long as they are in power, subject to passing laws through Parliament in due process and in the proper way, the Government are going to do these things whatever the Opposition might say.

The Opposition can shout and scream in the House of Commons, they can bleat in the media and write books and articles and oppose as much as they like. This applies to any Opposition. It is a constitutional, not party political, point.

So please, let’s be grown up about this, and empower the Government of the day to engage with the experts as, at last, they have now started to do and, subject to proper financial scrutiny (possibly by an all-party Parliamentary committee), allocate the funds required to the use of the best possible strategic, media, communications and creative skills available.

In this way, they will be able to transmit these ‘policies’ to the people whose lives they will affect rationally, emotionally, creatively, effectively – and professionally.

Let’s face it, the Government are going to do what they are going to do anyway. It doesn’t help for the people whose lives they affect to be left divided, unsure and confused.

I hope this newly appointed group from the top of our industry can put their own political allegiances to one side (if they have any) and start this ball rolling – leading, hopefully, one day, to a more united, more convergent, more caring and more humane society.

The politicians might not like it but we, the people of this country, are their constituency – and we are more important than they are.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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